MANCHESTER, April 5- Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal insists he has not given up hope of ending his first season in charge as a Premier League champion after a 3-1 win over Aston Villa lifted his team into third place.
United’s fifth consecutive victory, courtesy of two goals from Ander Herrera and one from Wayne Rooney, took United above defending champions Manchester City, who they meet in next weekend’s derby, and kept them within eight points of leaders Chelsea.
Van Gaal’s team also have an eight-point gap over fifth-placed Liverpool, making Champions League qualification all the more likely.
But Dutchman has now his sights set on overhauling Chelsea, who host United in a crunch clash later this month, rather than worrying about the teams below.
“The Champions League is not done yet but we made a big gap to Liverpool so we can suffer a defeat,” van Gaal said.
“But of course I’m also looking higher up the table and then we have to win every week and then everything is possible.
“Liverpool are now eight points behind us and we are more than eight points behind Chelsea so it’s not likely that we shall be the champions. But when you give pressure – and Arsenal are also giving pressure to Chelsea – then it is possible.
“We have to play the top three in the league and normally, if you play against better teams they have achieved more points than you, so it’s not yet done.”
However, key United players are hitting a rich vein of form currently, led by Herrera, who now has seven goals in his debut season in English football.
“I knew already that Herrera had a very good technical shot,” said van Gaal. “But sometimes he is not composed at the right moment.
“He has developed himself so he is more composed. When you score seven goals in a season where you don’t play all the matches, that is a fantastic season for him, in his first year.”
– Derby showdown –
There is now added importance to the Manchester derby for United, but van Gaal is aware City will provide far tougher opposition than Villa’s defensive-minded approach.
“We knew the performance could have been better but we won and the most important thing is we have to play for higher place in the table next week,” van Gaal said.
“I think against Manchester City it will be a different game.
“I think Manchester City shall not come here in such a defensive organisation and that is what we have seen against Tottenham and Liverpool.
“Those were the matches that you can say were fantastic matches although of course the result was always the most important thing. Maybe I hope we play ugly next week but we win. That’s the most important thing.”
Christian Benteke brought the game back to 2-1 for the final 10 minutes, but Villa, three points above the relegation zone, never appeared likely to snatch a point.
And for the visitors, the disappointment of the defeat was compounded by the loss to ankle injury of defender Alan Hutton who, along with Scott Sinclair and Ashley Westwood, will miss a crucial meeting with fellow strugglers QPR on Tuesday that could determine both clubs’ fate.
“I’ve never known an injury list like it. It’s unbelievable,” said Villa manager Tim Sherwood.
“But Tuesday was always going to be a massive game, irrespective of what QPR did today.
“We’re looking to be six points clear of them by the end of Tuesday night.
“I thought we stayed in the game. I wanted to come here and compete and we did that.
“But they have good players who have been around the block before. They recognise when to speed a game up, when to slow it down, and they managed the game well. They’re a good side.”